Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fire Emblem - Awakening

Awakening takes Fire Emblem to new heights.
Review By Westbrick

I'm not one for long introductions, so I'll be brief. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the franchise's thirteenth title, and isn't exactly the maverick entry some were expecting it to be. Though it comes with refined mechanics and a fresh coat of paint, Awakening is still classic Fire Emblem through and through. Thankfully, it includes enough major changes to make this the freshest game the series has seen in a long while. It also happens to be the best.

GRAPHICS: Let's be frank here for a moment. Shadow Dragon and its Japan-exclusive successor, New Mystery of the Emblem, both utilized a "unique" graphical style that can best be described as a cross between claymation and B-movie animatronics. And they were hideous. Though strategy RPGs are rarely graphical powerhouses, even the simple charm of the earlier entries had been done away with, and Awakening was left with the thankless job of atonement on the visual front. And it succeeds (give or take a little controversy; more on that in a bit). While I'm sure some will be upset at the transition away from sprites, the 3D character models look great and animate smoothly in combat, and new options allow for speeding up, slowing down, pausing, and changing the camera angle of battles as is deemed fit. And like all Fire Emblem games, the player has the option of turning off battle animations entirely, shifting the focus towards the very nice map graphics. Unit sprites are colorful and well-detailed given their small size, the map design is varied, and the pop-out effects of the 3DS are utilized well. Very easy on the eyes.

I suppose I should touch on the bit of "controversy" I mentioned earlier: the character designs. Fire Emblem games in the past have tended towards a more tame, realistic approach to design than usual RPG fare. Sure, there may have been oversized axes and impractically-dressed women from time to time, but these were, for the most part, exceptions. Awakening changes things up pretty dramatically here, and it's as love-or-hate an art style as I've ever seen. Hardly a big deal, and I can vouch from personal experience that the designs certainly grow on you over time, but just keep this in mind. Might not hurt to take a look at some of the character portraits before deciding on a purchase.

SOUND: If there's one area where the game went above and beyond expectations, it would be in the auditory department. Fire Emblem is a series that's graced gamers with consistently strong musical outings, but Awakening sets an entirely new standard. Not only is this remarkable soundtrack leaps and bounds beyond the rest of the series, it's also a legitimate candidate for best Nintendo score in the company's storied history. I say that without exaggeration. If you haven't gotten a chance to listen to some of the tracks yet, a Google search will prove my point far better than anything I can say here. Get to it!

Not only are the stand-alone tunes fantastic, but they're implemented in a fairly unique way. During the course of a skirmish, each song goes through an ebb-and-flow corresponding to time spent on the map and in battle. Your typical map track will use strings, brass, and piano, but once an enemy is engaged in battle, the percussion and bass swell up and add a fitting intensity, only to die down again once the battle ends. Each map song has its own small transition changes, but all work very well, and the limited interruptions (only Enemy Phase and certain boss fights will switch to an entirely new track) give things a nice, cohesive feel.

GAMEPLAY: Any strategy RPG can be aesthetically pleasing, but the meat and potatoes here are the mechanics. Awakening boasts a number of major gameplay updates, most notably the new "double" system that effectively replaced the "rescue" command. In past Fire Emblem games, rescuing was a great way to ferry units around the map, but came at the cost of lower stats and greater vulnerability. Awakening takes the opposite approach: here, when a unit doubles with another, both are rewarded with stat increases, and sizable ones to boot. Like rescuing, doubled units sit either in front or in back, protected entirely from enemy attacks; unlike rescuing, back units can initiate dual attacks (where both units engage the enemy) and, on occasion, nullify enemy attacks with a dual block. Adjacent units who are not doubled can also engage in dual attacks and blocks, and although they won't benefit from the stat increases, this does mean you have an extra unit to control during the next Player Phase.

This is an oversimplified explanation, and adjusting to the new mechanic (especially for those accustomed to older games) takes time. Once the player has the double system down pat, however, it's an absolute treat; and because stat boosts vary by class, a wide range of new strategic options becomes available to the player. Worried an exposed unit is going to get double-attacked? Send a swordmaster over to him for a speed increase. Want to throw a unit into the heat of battle, but are worried he won't quite make it out alive? Throw him a general for a huge defensive boost. You can trade items, double units, drop units, swap units, switch front and back units, switch and drop, drop and trade, trade and swap and switch and drop... it's wonderfully flexible, and rewards the player with a mind for careful item and unit management. And while enemy troops don't have access to the double command, the game is difficult enough to make its use mandatory through most of the campaign.

Speaking of difficulty, this game is one tough cookie. Three default difficulty options are available to the player at the outset- Normal, Hard, and Lunatic- with a fourth difficulty, Lunatic+, as an unlockable. Given that Normal Mode is effectively the "easy" way to play, it's honestly pretty surprising just how challenging it can get in spots. Excluding silly deaths resulting from me bumbling around the indecipherable menus, I'll estimate I had to restart about eight or so times over the course of the 40-odd chapter campaign; coming from someone who's proud to have toppled the series' more difficult entries, it was a rather humbling experience.

Hard Mode is a modest difficulty increase- better enemy stats, more reinforcements, the usual fare- but Lunatic Mode is an absurd test of endurance for even the most grizzled SRPG veteran. Awakening's archetypical "Jeigan" unit, Frederick, won't be taking more than two or three clean hits before biting the dust; the rest of your army will be lucky to survive one. But despite its soon-to-be-legendary difficulty, it's a great addition: not only is it sure to please the masochists in the audience, it's also a great demonstration of the versatility of the double system. Getting through this mode requires some very creative doubling strategies, and when that "Chapter Complete" banner floods the screen, the satisfaction always feels earned, from well-calculated tactics rather than dumb luck. It's nice to see the inclusion of a mode where Awakening's chief new mechanic isn't simply encouraged, but is absolutely essential for even a hope and a prayer of survival.

Other gameplay additions add even more depth to an already complete package. The world map used in Sacred Stones makes an appearance here, with some improvements: grinding levels forever is no longer an option thanks to the limited number of skirmishes available in between each chapter, and traveling merchants selling quality weapons and items (often at a nice discount!) encourage a bit of player exploration to hunt down the best deals. One of the more welcome additions is the triumphant return of the "generation system" found in Seisen no Keifu, which has been absent from the series since. When female units build up S-level supports with a partner, optional Gaiden maps will appear later on in the story with their children as recruitable soldiers, and the growths and skills of the second generation are influenced by which parents were paired together.

It's a system oozing with replay value, but as if that weren't enough, Awakening also includes downloadable maps and characters, with new additions being added often. The game even takes a page from FE7, adopting its tactician feature and evolving it into a full-blown, highly-customizable "My Unit" class. Letting the player project an avatar of himself into the game world is a neat bonus, and MU even has the ability to marry and have a kid (recruitable, naturally). There's also a refined promotion system, which combines the best of Sacred Stones and Shadow Dragon, and a bevy of new classes to choose from.

STORY: Unfortunately, I can't really comment here, since I don't know a lick of Japanese. What I can say is that Awakening includes a number of surprising crossovers from past titles that will delight longtime fans, as well as a truly staggering number of support conversations (though, unlike FE10, these are all unique). If I were a gambling man, I'd wager that the character development here is tops, a safe bet given the series' pedigree for fleshed-out casts.

OVERALL: But whether or not the plot pans out, Awakening is a certified series highpoint. It looks, sounds, plays, and feels better than any other Fire Emblem entry- and, for that matter, just about any strategy game period. The 3DS finally has a signature piece of software, as well as its first true classic... in Japan. Pray for a stateside release.

NAME: FIRE EMBLEM - AWAKENING
SYSTEM: Nintendo 3DS

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